Keating awarded NSF funding to study synthetic cells and the rules of life

Gail McCormick
October 07, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A research team including Christine Keating, professor of chemistry, has been selected to receive funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of its “Understanding the Rules of Life” initiative, a topic identified by the NSF as a long-term research priority in 2016.

"Discovering the rules governing life on Earth is a grand scientific challenge that holds the potential to enhance the U.S. position as a global leader in research and development," said NSF Assistant Director for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Skip Lupia. "NSF's investments will enable us to address some of the greatest challenges we currently face in understanding the living world."

Keating’s project is one of six selected to receive funding to explore the boundaries of life as we know it by creating synthetic cells — particles constructed of biological or artificial materials that mimic the functions of natural, living cells. Researchers can build synthetic cells from scratch, or start with a natural cell and remove components until the cell stops working in order to identify systems essential for cell function. Understanding the complex rules governing how cells assemble and function helps answer fundamental questions in biology, chemistry, engineering, and many other fields.

Keating’s project, led by Cheryl Kerfeld at Michigan State University, specifically investigates whether lipids, considered essential cellular building blocks, are indeed required for life by attempting to build a functional artificial cell using proteins in place of lipids. The research team will investigate whether proteins can perform roles typically played by lipids, including taking the place of the lipid bilayer membranes that most biological cells have to keep cellular components in place. Because the amino acid coding sequence of proteins can be programmed into the synthetic cell’s genetic material, the team can design proteins with desirable properties, like specific lengths of hydrophobic water-repelling or hydrophilic water-attracting regions.

"The synthesis of viable cells from non-living molecules will create new means to produce biofuels, pharmaceuticals, and other bioproducts and will transform approaches in agriculture, medicine, computing, and engineering," said NSF Assistant Director for Biological Sciences Joanne Tornow.

The project will also provide unique educational opportunities as well as opportunities to engage in a two-way dialog with the public regarding the meaning of a synthetic cell, and the possibilities, benefits, and concerns related to creating new forms of cellular life.

The cross-disciplinary research team also includes Giovanna Ghirlanda at Arizona State University, Barbara Herr Harthorn at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Vincent Noireaux at the University of Minnesotaa, and Millicent Sullivan at the University of Delaware.

Last Updated October 07, 2019